Motorama – Los Angeles – Robert Frank
This essay interprets a single image, reflects on its meaning and places it in a wider artistic, historical and political context. It also presents a personal reflection on a single image, the artist’s intent and what might be being communicated.
The image is Robert Frank’s: ‘Motorama – Los Angeles’, taken from ‘The Americans’ published in 1958.
Frank, a Swiss born photographer needs little introduction, ‘The Americans’ makes a major contribution to photography’s cannon, described by Peter Schjeldahl, art critic of The New Yorker as: ‘one of the basic American masterpieces of any medium.’
‘The Americans’ was the product of a road trip in three parts, over several years. On coming to America, Frank’s association with Edward Steichen, then the curator of Photography at MoMA and with photographer Walker Evans, led him to successfully secure a Guggenheim grant to fund the project.
Motorama – Los Angeles at first glance might appear to be one of the less iconic images in ‘The Americans’. The image denotes a dark scene that on closer inspection reveals the illuminated interior of a car seen thorough its windscreen. Cars and people framed through windows are recurring tropes in Frank’s work. This image isolates the windscreen in a sea of darkness, hints of chrome in the highlights imply an expensive automobile at night. The image alone reveals little about the cars location. The framing and printing place emphasis on the occupants of the vehicle. All are children, but one stands out in particular, his face half lit, half in shadow stares directly out at the viewer. It is this face, self-assured and assertive in its expression, flanked by the two others, both staring at this protagonist, as if seeking approval or waiting for instruction that creates what Barthes (1979) would describe as the punctum: ‘that accident which pricks or bruises me’. The interplay of the expressions of the car’s occupants asks questions of the viewer about the relationships of the occupants. The absence of adults and the unknown location present additional questions to consider.
The occupants, protected in a steel and glass sanctuary from the surrounding darkness could be an allegory about wealth, class, race and division. The car as a symbol of prosperity is not new. Two decades earlier, Margaret Bourke White’s image of African Americans queuing for aid in front of a hoarding depicting a white happy family through the windscreen of their car, anchors it as symbol of the American prosperity. The hoardings caption reads: ‘Worlds highest standard of living’ and ‘there’s no way like the American way’. Frank’s subtler image, like Bourke Whites earlier work, questions the validity of Americas view of itself in the 1950s as a place of growth and prosperity. Indeed, during Eisenhower’s two terms of presidency the administration only balanced the budget on three occasions. Frank’s image doesn’t refute that Americans have wealth and happiness, but rather that it might not be a universal experience.
But all may not be what it seems, Motorama was General Motors annual show of its latest models. It’s likely that Frank made this image at the show in March 1956. Does this contextual information shift the meaning of the image, now simply a group of boys sitting in a show car?
The image is beautifully cinematic, a screen within a screen, like a still taken from a film noir movie, evocative of Hollywood’s renditions of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novels and Frank is highlighting the three-young occupants and not the car.
The title too is important, although the image was taken at an event to showcase new automobiles, this may not be what Frank was revealing in this image. It is the three young people in the scene that Frank captured and like the new cars at the show they too were on display. The next generation, most likely to inherit the fruits of the American dream, already being groomed for a future far from the experience of many. The expression on the face of the principle protagonist confirming a confident assertive view of themselves. The meek might inherent the earth, but these future presidents, praetorians or philanthropists in waiting, are the generation that will inherit the best of the American dream and Frank’s image tells us that they know it.
Like Chandler and Hammet’s fictional private detectives, Marlowe and Spade, Frank and his camera are revealing a truth that might otherwise have been hidden.
Thinking about this image in the wider context of Frank’s work, it certainly provoked a range of reactions and has been used to question a nation’s view of itself, presenting an alternative view of America that chimed with the ‘Beat’ generation who’s literature and poetry also challenged the assumptions about the American dream.
As Jobey (2009) states:
‘Frank’s book was condemned almost unanimously when it was first published, but for decades now it has been recognised as a work that identified a cultural shift in America; that showed the country back to itself, and more clearly than most of its inhabitants cared to acknowledge.’
However, Dunford (2011) presents an argument for Frank’s work being appropriated by commentators wanting to make political arguments about America in the 1950s. In doing so Dunford suggests they have robbed it of its aesthetic and iconographic content. Citing Frank’s work being referenced by sociologists without any use of or reference to a single image.
Barrett’s (1988) notion of the ‘external context’ of an image might also help understand where Frank’s work has been located and how the connotations present in ‘The Americans’ have become a tool for political and or sociological critique, as he suggests:
‘the meaning of any photograph is dependent on the context in which it appears.’
In summary, what this single image reveals is the investigative power of Frank’s camera, his bold use of iconography, referenced to wider media of the time, notably cinema, to present to the original viewer in 50s America, three young people, who just might be charge in the future. As an outsider, Frank was uniquely placed to do this, uncontaminated by an American’s view of themself and revealing what was there in plain sight. For the contemporary viewer seeing this image ‘out of time’ it is Frank’s keen eye for the pictorial that tells a story beyond that which is contained within the 35mm frame and in doing so we are offered tangible evidence about the power of the still image to tell a story.
 Peter Schjeldahl, Quoted in Dawidoff (2015)
 Sarah Kennel (2014) describes the three components of Frank’s road trip in her lecture to the Bowdoin College
 MoMA is the Museum of Modern art in New York
 In researching this essay 8 distinct versions of the image were found with differing crops and varying degrees of darkness and light in the prints
 Bourke White’s image was part of an assignment looking at the impact of the 1937 flood of the Great Ohio River in Kentucky that displaced many residents. Source: Cosgrove 2014
 The Eisenhower Era 1952-1960- AP United states history Study Notes, found at: ww.apstudynotes.org/us-history/outlines/chapter-38-the-eisenhower-era-1952-1960/ (Accessed March 2017)
 Motorama was only held once in Los Angeles during the period Frank was working on ‘The Americans’. Frank started his road trip in July 1955, too late for the only other time Motorama was in LA Source 1- Kennell (2014) Source 2- GM Archive found at: https://history.gmheritagecenter.com/wiki/index.php/1956_Motorama:_Design_for_Dreaming
 Raymond Chandler 1888 – March 26, 1959American/British novelist famous for crime dramas and his character Philip Marlow, a private detective
 Dashiell Hammet 1894 – 1961 American author famous for stories like The Maltese Falcon and his character Sam Spade, a private detective
 Beat Generation writers and artists such as Karouac, (who wrote the introduction to The Americans) Ginsberg and Burroughs questioned materialism, wealth and the inclusivity and equality in American society Source: http://www.online-literature.com/periods/beat.php
Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, Vintage, London
Barrett, T. (1986) Teaching about Photography: Photographs and Contexts Art Education, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Jul., 1986), pp. 33-36. Found at: http://www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/Barrett%20(1986)%20Photographs%20&%20Contexts.pdf (Accessed March 2017)
Campany, D. (2014) The Open Road- Photography & the American Road Trip, Aperture, London
Cosgrove, B. (2014) Behind the Picture-The American Way and the flood of ’37, found at: www.time.com/3879426/the-american-way-photos-from-the-great-ohio-river-flood-of-1937/ (Accessed March 2017)
Dawidoff, N. (2015) The man who saw America-Looking back with Robert Frank, the most influential photographer alive, New York Times Magazine found at: www.nytimes.com/2015/07/05/magazine/robert-franks-america.html?_r=0 (Accessed March 2017)
Dunford, T. (2011) Looking at Robert Frank’s “The Americans”- New English Review found at: http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/90393/sec_id/90393 (Accessed March 2017)
Dunford, T. (2012) Miss reading “On the Road” New English Review found at: http://www.newenglishreview.org/Terry_Dunford/Misreading_%22On_the_Road%22/ (Accessed March 2017)
Frank, R. (1958) U.S. Camera Annual 1958 , p. 115 found at: www.americansuburbx.com/2012/07/robert-frank-a-statement-1958.html (Accessed March 2017)
Frank, R. (1959) The Americans, Stieidl (2008 Reprint), Gottingen
Howarth, S. (Ed.) (2005) Singular Images-Essays on Remarkable Photographs, Tate Publishing, London
Jobey, L. (2009) Photographer Robert Frank: holding a mirror up to America, The Guardian, found at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/jan/29/robert-frank-america-photography (Accessed March 2017)
Kennel, S (2014) Robert Frank: Nobody’s Home, Bowdoin College Lecture found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfEhCoWcvrc (Accessed March 2017)
O’Hagan, S. (2004) The Big Empty- The Guardian, found at: www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/oct/24/photography (Accessed March 2017)
O’Hagan, S. (2014) Robert Frank at 90- The Photographer that revealed America won’t look back. The Guardian found at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/07/robert-frank-americans-photography-influence-shadows (Accessed March 2017)
Papegoerge, T. (1981) Walker Evans and Robert Frank – An Essay on Influence, found at: www. americansuburbx.com/2010/07/theory-walker-evans-and-robert-frank.html (Accessed April 2017)